Exercise therapy gives student hope

Published: January 4, 2004
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MUNCIE, Ind. — Chrissy Parker laboriously drags one leg in front of the other, the top of her blue adidas gym shoe skidding across the treadmill’s slowly moving runner.

A harness attached to a metal contraption — called a Lite Gait — holds her body upright while she walks at a 1.9 mph pace. As the speed is increased to 2.5 mph — a normal walking pace — trainers repeatedly lift her feet up and down so she can keep up.

The 90-minute workout at Ball State University’s Irving Gym, which Parker does three times a week, is part of a Rehabilitation program for the 18-year-old freshman, who was partially paralyzed in a car accident nearly four years ago.

Parker is one of an estimated 200,000 people in the United States with spinal cord injuries. Her rehabilitation is centered on the activity-based therapy originally developed for actor Christopher Reeve by Washington University in St. Louis.

The therapy stems from the premise that encouraging individuals to use a partially paralyzed limb is effective because forced movements might stimulate damaged nerve cells to relearn their jobs.

Reeve, paralyzed below the neck after falling from a horse in 1995, has since regained some movement and feeling.

Parker hopes for much more.

“My ultimate goal is to walk again,” she said. “It’s just a matter of when that will happen.”

Parker talks with confidence. And her mother and those who work with her at Ball State say she has the willpower needed to keep her going.

That willpower has served her well since February 2000, when the car accident changed the active teenager’s life.

Parker, who had just turned 15, was riding with a friend when the car was rear-ended. Parker was thrown from the vehicle.

At first, doctors thought her spinal cord had been completely severed, which would mean there would be no feeling below the injury site.

But she had feeling in her upper left thigh and held out hope that one day she would not need her wheelchair.

A tip from her hairdresser, who had read about Reeve in People magazine, led Parker to the Rehabilitation Institute of St. Louis.

The institute, affiliated with Washington University’s School of Medicine, helped about 500 people get launched on activity-based therapy last year, said Linda Schultz, a nurse specialist for the university’s Spinal Cord Injury Program.

Each person is evaluated and given a specific therapy program, which can include Gait Training or riding a specially equipped bicycle, Schultz said.

“Our whole program is based on this activity theory — the more you use something stimulates some kind of recovery,” she said.

Parker was a good candidate for the program. She could move her legs slightly outward and bend her knees up while lying on her side.

“It gave me new hope,” Parker said. “Before going to St. Louis, I think I probably gave up and decided, ‘This is how it is going to be, and I’ll just work with it.’ ”

Previous research had found that people who’ve suffered spinal cord injuries are most likely to recover within the first six months; progress usually is complete two years after the injury.

But since October 2000, five years after his accident, Reeve’s condition has improved. He can now feel a pinprick on the majority of his body and can move some of his joints voluntarily and others against resistance, Washington University researchers report.

They say Reeve’s results are in line with recent studies that have found patients with spinal cord injuries who can move their legs appear to benefit from gait training — walking with the help of harnesses, therapists and supportive equipment. Now they’re conducting research to see whether activity-based therapy is the reason for patients’ progress.

It’s the regimen Parker has followed since April.

“It’s very promising,” said Parker’s mother, Sandy, of Anderson. “We can see a difference. I truly believe it’s working for her.”

Parker sees the improvement, too.

“I can tell my muscles are getting stronger,” she said. “Now, I’m able to walk faster on the treadmill and for longer periods of time. I’m able to control my legs better than when I started.”

After leaving St. Louis, Parker worked with St. John’s Medical Center in Anderson, her hometown. Doctors at the center then called Ron Davis, coordinator of Ball State’s adapted physical education program, to ask him to supervise the rehabilitation while she’s on campus.

Davis, who has worked with the Paralympics, jumped at the chance.

“We feel something is going on,” Davis said of Parker’s progress.

This coming semester, tests will be done to determine whether her bone density has improved from the exercise; the amount and location of electrical activity in her muscles also will be traced, said Brendan Humphries, an associate professor in biomechanics. Parker’s regimen then can be modified to capitalize on her strengths and shore up weak areas.

It can’t be soon enough for Parker.

“She’s kind of impatient,” Davis said. “She wants it now.”

Still, Parker isn’t waiting to get on with her life.

Though hospitalized for five weeks after her accident, she made up her class work and graduated with her classmates. She learned to drive a car with hand controls the summer after her accident.

Now, she lives with a roommate in a handicapped-accessible residence hall and takes a full load of 15 credit hours. She’s studying to become a speech pathologist and hopes to work with young children.

Jason Diaz, a graduate student who works with Parker, said she’s determined to succeed.

“Whatever I ask her to do, she’s willing to do it. She doesn’t want to take baby steps; she wants to be able to walk now.”

As she works toward that goal, Parker doesn’t dwell on what she’s missing.

“I don’t want to feel sorry for myself,” she said. “If you do, you’re just going to feel depressed all the time.

“I just want to be independent and be able to have a normal life.”

Call Star reporter Barb Berggoetz at 1-317-444-6294